Build it, Throw a Party, then Woo 'em In

Since Avi decided not to channel the antithesis of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams (1989), I will! With the prompt of "How do we build/maintain digital cohorts and academic communities?" (or I'll rephrase it as, "how to build a community of dreams?"), I can't help but respond in a practical way.

It is extremely difficult to develop digital community without first bringing together people through an event. Most of the digital communities I've seen flourish start with a group of people who came together for some scheduled event like a conference, workshop, or webinar. The events help the potential digital community to both identify individuals as well as exchange digital contact information. For example, CyberSalon, the Google Group primarily made up of faculty who teach with technology in the Maricopa Community College District, started from monthly socials; now some people are only active on the listserve (especially those who do not live in Phoenix) and others are active in both the digital and real-world spaces.

However, identifying a potential community, and swapping contact information, is not enough. For the community to actually grow and thrive, participants must be active in the new "space" after the original event. And since everyone is always already busy, the new community must be providing something that makes it worth the member's time. This next spring, one of my classes and I will be work on this digital community membership and activity challenge while developing the "ODU Learns" social media plan for Old Dominion University's libraries, Learning Commons, and Student Success Center. The various academic learning services want to develop digital community to support ODU student learning. For example, the Learning Commons staff can regularly post pictures of students studying and working in the Learning Commons on the ODU Learns Facebook page. The learning commons provides something the students "want," and students join the ODU Learns Facebook page community. Once students are a member of that digital community, the students will be more likely to find, and hopefully to comment upon, the academic information the ODU staff will also be posting in the digital space.

Presentation poster about CyberSalon; larger image available to view on Flickr.


During severe winter storms back home in Milwaukee, it always amazed me whenever the bands of mercenary shovelers, car-pushers, and neighbors suddenly emerged to dig one another out from under the buried city. However, it was disappointing when these temporary communities would dissipate - why couldn't this cooperative spirit be maintained? More optimistically, I now believe/hope that events such as these (hurricane, personal trauma, finals!) contribute to a stronger, richer community that builds on moments and sites of struggle.

Maintaining digital communities (who also emerge from struggle) entails outreach that attracts new members while walking a fine line between the extremes of inactivity and saturation. During Sandy, humanitarian and government aid sites exploded with activity but, of course, quieted once citizens were "done" with them. Much of the activity, however, was simply the exchange of information that impacted citizens with responses coming in the form of thanks for information and updates. The public simply wanted to know that someone was paying attention.

Many of these organizations, however, hesitate to "open the forum" to public input so the only course of action is to produce content that maintains interest. This is often done through attention to social and environmental context. While the online discussion lags, it's important to maintain that presence for the org to be trusted as a persistent resource - a way to point the guy with the shovel to the car stuck in the snowbank.


 Kris, you bring up a couple ideas/issues I find interesting. First, I love the idea of "just-in-time" communities that come to mind with your idea of support networks. However, again, I wonder if these communities are always already "prepped" by things like shared location. So your local, real-world example of a just-in-time communitee of the shovelers has it pre-community "event" as the fact they live near one another. 

Then, the "problem" for constructing (I'm not even thinking of maintaining yet), digital just-in-time support groups would be the question of how to "prep" them first. So, the maintainence would be the work you would need to do "post-prep." Does the Red Cross start collecting Twitter handles and Facebook URLs from anyone who donates as a form of "prepping" for a just-in-time digital support community? 

I like the point the Shelley brings up about the importance of online communities offering something that people can't necessarily find offline. Or offering an different and/or varied extension of the offline communal space.

It's no secret that communities require work, but at what point does the work become more than a item on a to-do list and something that people look forward to engaging with? It's probably somewhere in the same area where the online community starts to evolve in ways that the offline community is unable. I feel that this is the sort of problem that teachers run into when there is a required online component to class (like a discussion board posting) that seeks to impose community from the top down. The "community" become a checklist item that students must "participate in" in order to receive a grade.

 Matt, I love that you bring up the work vs reward issue of partipating in a digital community. That's when community size can help, right? Part of the "problem" of what Kris mentions above is that some folks want to control "correct" information. The price of that control; the few in control have to do all the work of posting information regularly.

Back to my example of the CyberSalon digital community, when it first started I felt the pressure to repond regularly (esp. when folks posted questions). Now that the group is up to 143 members (I just checked), there are enough folks to make sure someone always receives a response. Now I only need to respond when I'm interested, like this recent conversation on Flickr and overlapping privacy and copyright legal concerns.

I especially love your example of the discussion board; because not only is it "work" for the students when they are required to reply but it is also "work" for the instructor who then has to read, respond, and assess those posts as well. I think talking about classroom discussions loops us back to Avi's desire to focus on "scholarly" communities. If everyone is responding to the same question (with the same experience of reading the same text), they are not motivated to go read what their classmate's said because how likely is it to be new and interesting. That is why "jig-saw" reading and discussion activities are successful, right? Students need information from one another and are therefore more invested in participating in the discussion. It is no surprise that scholars repeatedly suggestion that online student retention is connected to community building; however, they generally agree this is no easy task. 

By Anonymous

I definitely feel you. I was trying to built a digital community around healthcare administration two years ago, but it went very very wrong. I don't want to disappoint you, but you really need to prepare every single step if you want to succeed. As you said, people are very busy and you need to come up with something really interesting and different from what we already have. You need to work really really hard!


I agree about the need to plan; however, there is something to leaving some space for flexibility. Now, can either of us definitively articulate what is the exact amount of planning (and/or what exactly to plan for) as well as what to leave flexible...I doubt it. Things that I generally try to plan for:
  • how/why get invited/start-up
  • the take-aways from the group (how/why they should start up)
  • things that could go wrong and how to address them
Some things that happened in groups that I didn't plan for an have thought about since:
  1. expanded audience members (with power! In this case it was administrators that held positions over the people participating in the community)
  2. morphing beyond the original purpose (which means it's being used; so this is an example of being flexible)
I hope you haven't given up on trying to build digital communities. I agree, it is difficult; but if it works, it is worth the work!

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